History of Trauma in Environmental Art: The Esoteric Origins of Beuys

While serving in the Nazi Luftwaffe, Beuys aircraft was downed by Allied forces. This crash gave Beuys the perfect opportunity to reinvent himself and create a narrative that centered the artist as a worldly man with knowledge of mystical ideas from both German and Indigenous communities. For his entire career Beuys drew from this crash in his artwork––either purposefully appearing as a shaman with inherent connections to the mystic or as a lecturer explaining these ideas as a progressive take on the end of Modernism. Either way, Beuys’s entire career was set on course due to this crash and the trauma that ensued.

Returning to civilian life, Beuys slowly became interested in the thoughts of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the founder of an esoteric religion known as Anthroposophy. Steiner philosophized about the connections between science and spirituality, which favored both individualism and the arts. He also advocated for education reform, sustainable agriculture, and equality across race, religion, and political affiliation. Steiner’s ideas focused on the nature of the human being and he attempted to understand the world through the scientific method and rational thought. In particular, the nature of the human body was of utmost importance due to the ability of the physical body to hold both the “etheric body” (the body that gives life) as well as the “astral body” (the body that holds consciousness).

Beuys considered the end of Modernism to be a positive transition to a culture that supports an expanded definition of art, where everyone could participate in both art making and democratic processes simultaneously. Beuys summarized the problems of a modern world by saying there is a “complexity between the power of money and the power of the state.” If Beuys had his way, society would move to focusing on the collective, which would move economic endeavors away from ecological destruction, profiting off of minorities, and a focus on material wealth. Beuys’s deviation would stray from a capitalist global economy to an economy that favored art, equality, and ecological restoration.

For Beuys and Steiner, Modernism arose at the point where high modern art and the esoteric meet. Modernism is often disconnected from spiritual life, and both Steiner and Beuys attempt to bring these connections that are often dismissed in favor of rationalism to the forefront. In terms of defining Modernism for both Steiner and Beuys a definition of innovative, future-oriented art production that valued global religious traditions and systems should suffice.

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